Our members, Victoria Cooper and Naomi Holford (Open University, UK), talk about their edited collection, Exploring Childhood and Youth (Routledge, 2021).
This book is about the complexities of children and young people’s everyday lived experiences. It takes an interdisciplinary approach to explore a wide range of aspects of childhood and youth across the world, looking at how children’s lives are shaped by the social and cultural contexts they live in, and how they shape those contexts.
Throughout, we aim to take a critical perspective on childhood studies, paying attention to power and difference. Authors come from a variety of perspectives, drawing upon the disciplines of childhood studies, psychology, anthropology, health, and children’s geographies to understand everyday experiences through four key themes: bodies and minds; space, place and belonging; inequalities and inclusion; and childhoods in the past, present, and future.
Some specific topics covered include questions of online privacy and surveillance in children’s digital lives; young people’s relationships with climate change and the environment; how historical and contemporary eugenics affect disabled children’s lives; as well as children’s experiences of play, gender, and schooling. Throughout, we aim to take children and young people’s voices and perspectives seriously, and foreground children’s rights – while acknowledging theoretical and practical challenges and tensions in making rights a reality.
We wanted to build a collection that introduced new audiences of students to key foundational concepts in childhood and youth studies, while also exploring exciting emerging areas of the field. The book evolved from a shared interest in the experiences of children and young people and a commitment from all our contributors to share research about childhood in ways which can forge greater understanding.
In designing this book, we wanted to bring together a variety of different academic voices, from a broad range of academic disciplines and topics to provide readers with deeper insights into the everyday, nuanced experiences that make up children and young people’s lives.
We were particularly interested in teasing out some of the taken-for-granted and often overlooked aspects of childhood. When explored in detail, we feel these can disrupt and challenge how we understand, and work with, children and young people. The book covers some challenging and potentially emotive material, asking readers to reflect on and question complex issues which impact children and young people’s lives, including violence, poverty, and disability.
Many of the core assumptions at the heart of childhood and youth studies retain the power to surprise and disturb, challenging ideas about childhood that are deeply embedded in the UK and the Global North more broadly. Teaching Open University students, who bring a wealth of experience and expertise from their own backgrounds, we find they are still intrigued and compelled to discover a subject that considers the world from a child’s and young person’s perspective. As such, this book is designed to introduce new audiences to key founding themes of childhood and youth studies: the idea that children and young people are active agents in shaping their own lives, that childhood is socially constructed, that children’s and young people’s perspectives are worthy of study in their own right (James and Prout, 1997), and that their rights are important and require respect. At the same time, we aim to reflect the broadening of contemporary childhood and youth studies, critically examining assumptions of the field and exploring emerging areas and perspectives.
One key aim in this volume is to foreground the everyday – those aspects of children’s and young people’s lives and contexts that might otherwise go unexamined, be overlooked or taken for granted – the material things, such as games, pictures and toys which furnish their lives, the food they routinely eat, digital media they engage with, how they play and their relationships with the environment – and how close inspection of these everyday experiences can provide rich insights into the interplay between adult power, children and young people’s rights and their own personal agency. Of course, what is everyday to one child is not to another. The experience of institutionalisation as a psychiatric inpatient is everyday life to 15-year-old Andrew (Chapter 13), just as using his dad’s computer is to six-year-old Bernie (Chapter 1) and avoiding violence from her supervisor in a small hand embroidery workshop is to 12-year-old Rima (Chapter 5). In all these examples, everyday experiences are shaped by an array of social, cultural, political and economic factors around the individual child.
These intertwining influences mean that in order to understand any child or young person’s life we need to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. The authors come from a range of backgrounds in the social sciences, with some drawing upon the more familiar disciplines within childhood and youth studies, such as anthropology and sociology. Others draw upon newer disciplines, like ‘mad studies’ (a relatively new field of academic study focused on making overtly visible the violence experienced by people deemed mad). Many authors incorporate insights from children’s geographies, which has produced so much of the influential work in recent childhood and youth studies. In addition, several authors work with psychology. Childhood studies and psychology have not always sat comfortably together; indeed, early work in childhood studies (e.g. James et al. 1998) was often explicitly framed as a rejection of developmental psychology, and what was seen as its tendency to consider childhood as a series of universal stages, establishing norms of development from which deviation is considered a problem. While we share some of these critiques of certain forms of developmental psychology and continue to emphasise the importance of the cultural shaping of childhood, we also consider psychology as a wide and varied field and value its insights into childhood as well as its critiques from within (Montgomery and Tatlow-Golden, 2020). Through the chapters in this book there is also a focus on embodiment, recognising the importance of the body and biological factors in shaping (and being shaped by) childhood. Indeed, Peter Kraftl argues in our final chapter that childhood and youth studies may need to look further than the social sciences, with contemporary and future childhoods profoundly and inescapably affected by climate change.
As we adopt an interdisciplinary approach, bringing different disciplines together, so we aim to look at childhood through an intersectional lens, understanding how different aspects of children’s and young people’s identity come together – how they intersect – and what that means. Crucially, intersectionality (a term introduced by the black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989) emphasises inequalities between and among different groups; it is not interested just in describing differences but in examining relations of power between people. Discussing the impact of her theory over 20 years, Crenshaw described intersectionality as:
a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.(Columbia Law School, 2017)
Childhood and youth studies has always been concerned with power and difference; perhaps most fundamentally with considering the power differentials and relationships between children and adults. Outlining the key founding concepts of childhood studies, Allison James and Alan Prout included the principle that childhood is not a ‘single and universal phenomenon’ (1997, p. 8), but is one aspect of social analysis that cannot be entirely separated from other categories like class, gender or ethnicity. Taking an intersectional approach to childhood and youth studies requires recognition and analysis of the complex inequalities that shape children’s lives. As Konstantoni and Emejulu (2017) argue, ‘“being a child” and “having a childhood” mean different things to different children by virtue of their race, class, gender and geographical location’ (p. 17). As explored throughout this volume, geographical location or place influences children’s and young people’s experiences greatly.